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Book Haul (February 2017)

This post is a little early, coming as it is before February has even finished, but I am going on holiday in a couple of days, and wanted to ensure that I remembered to post it.  Without further ado, here are the books which I purchased during February, a month in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy anything new.  I bought thirteen books in total; unlucky for some, but lucky for my bookshelf!

9781743215524We begin the month with two travel guides.  My boyfriend and I had originally planned to travel to Riga, and so I bought the Riga Rough Guide before trying to book our flights (which, it turns out, is nigh on impossible from Scotland if we don’t want to change plane twice and have a thirteen-hour long journey…).  After three hours of searching supposed ‘direct’ flights – which was rather trying, believe me! – we eventually decided to book a trip to easy-to-get-to Amsterdam, hence my subsequent purchase of a Lonely Planet Guide to The Netherlands.  The Lonely Planet guides are a little pricier than others, but I absolutely love them, and try to buy them for as many trips as I can.

I lucked out somewhat by finding an omnibus collection of two Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels.  I have wanted to read The Blank Wall for an absolute age, but have never found a physical copy of it, and those online were rather expensive.  I managed, somehow, to order a used copy with the aforementioned, as well as another of her novels, The Innocent Mrs. Duff.  Good old Internet!

February was, I suppose, a month of classics for me – or modern ones, at least!  I 18176595purchased my final outstanding William Maxwell novel, Time Will Darken It, which I am both ecstatic and rather sad about reading.  I also chose two books by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the Virago edition of her Diaries, and the also gorgeous green spined Selected Stories.  I love Warner’s work so much, and am just as excited to get to her non-fiction as I am to read more of her short fiction.  Carrying on with the green spines, I also bought one of my last outstanding Nina Bawden novels for some well-needed escapism away from my research work.  I chose A Little Love, A Little Learning almost at random, but have later found that it has been well reviewed by several of my friends, and bloggers whom I very much admire.

Two French classics have also made their way onto my shelves.  Whilst neither was 716381actually upon my original Reading France Project list, one of my esteemed reading friends on Goodreads gave both five star reviews, and I just couldn’t resist them.  Thus, I am very much looking forward to Andre Gide‘s Strait is the Gate, and Therese by Francois Mauriac, both of which I endeavour to read whilst in France over Easter.

Two further short story collections and two contemporary novels finish my haul for this 9780307957795month.  With regard to the short fiction, I chose to finally get my hands on a copy of Karen Russell‘s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I have wanted for such a long time.  As Mother’s Day is also coming up, I plumped for a gorgeous Everyman’s Library hardback edition of Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell.  With regard to my contemporary picks, I chose One by Sarah Crossan, in which my interest was piqued after watching a BBC2 documentary encouraging teenagers in one particular school to read, and Liz Jensen‘s The Uninvited.  I’ve not read anything by Jensen in a long time, and the storyline intrigued me rather.

So ends this month’s book haul!  Which books have you bought and received this month?  Have you read any of these?  Which should I begin with?

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books series is here.  These are so fun to create, particularly as I seek out underrated books myself to read and review.  Have you found any hidden gems this year?  Which were the most recent underrated books which you read?

97818702068081. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis
First published in 1934 to great acclaim, this enchanting autobiographical novel set in the Welsh borders vividly evokes the essence of childhood and a vanished way of life through the eyes of nine-year-old Lucy. She describes the great events—haymaking, harvest, a seaside holiday—set against the tapestry of the everyday  routines of summer and winter, with the constant background of the garden outside. There is the world of the imagination too, which includes the invested heroes and heroines of childhood whose deeds are as important as those of any real person. Recapturing this world in a deceptively simple style, this novel brings to life the whims, terrors, and intense feelings of childhood.

 

2. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure by Joseph Wechsberg
After World War II, the author revisited some of Europe’s most famous restaurants. But every chapter in this book goes far beyond food critiques: each is a delightful essay on the art of graceful living.

 

3. The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas 6393369
Uniting the author’s lyrical and philosophical flights of narrative in a satire whose savagery is only relieved by irrepressible laughter, this work explores the underlying meaning of South Wales’ history, which is not so much documented as laid bare for universal dissection and dissemination. The novel, with its distinctive plural narration, is a choric commentary on human illusion and knowledge, on power and its attendant deprivation, on dreams and their destruction.

 

4. Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.  Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

 

184063185. Written in the Stars by Lois Duncan
An extraordinary look at the genesis of a great writer’s career, Written in the Stars is a collection of Lois Duncan’s earliest stories. composed from the ages of 13 through 22. From family relationships, to the joy and angst of first love, to the struggles of a young soldier returning from war with PTSD, this unique book, whose stories originally appeared in magazines such as Seventeen and American Girl, is a marvelous portrait of the depth and breadth of Duncan’s youthful work. As a special bonus, Lois has followed each story with a brief essay describing her work and life at the time the story was written. Written in the Stars is a must-have addition to the library of work from this spectacular and groundbreaking young adult author.

 

6. A Dog’s Head by Jean Dutourd
Jean Dutourd’s A Dog’s Head is a wonderful piece of magical realism, reminiscent of Voltaire, Borges and Kafka. With biting wit, Dutourd presents the story of Edmund Du Chaillu, a boy born, to his bourgeois parents’s horror, with the head of a spaniel. Edmund must endure his school-mate’s teasing as well as an urge to carry a newspaper in his mouth. This is the story of his life, trials, and joys as he searches for a normal life of worth and love.

 

7. Mario and the Magician: and Other Stories by Thomas Mann 1573375
In this extraordinary collection of short stories, Thomas Mann uses settings as diverse as Germany, Italy, the Holy Land and the Far East to explore a theme which always preoccupied him: the two faces of things. Thus, in A Man and His Dog and Disorder and Early Sorrow, small domestic tempests become symbolic of the discordant muddle of humanity. In The Transposed Heads and The Tables of Law the demands of the intellect clash with the desires of physiology, an idea developed more fully in The Black Swan, where body and spirit are tragically out of harmony. Written between 1918 and 1953, these stories offer us both an insight into Mann’s development of thought and also some impressive literature from these interesting times.

 

8. A Seventh Man by John Berger
Why does the Western world look to migrant laborers to perform the most menial tasks? What compels people to leave their homes and accept this humiliating situation? In A Seventh Man, John Berger and Jean Mohr come to grips with what it is to be a migrant worker—the material circumstances and the inner experience—and, in doing so, reveal how the migrant is not so much on the margins of modern life, but absolutely central to it. First published in 1975, this finely wrought exploration remains as urgent as ever, presenting a mode of living that pervades the countries of the West and yet is excluded from much of its culture.

 

48862679. The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
Alive with history, myth, and wonder, The City of Yes is a luminous novel of parallel journeys through old and present-day Japan. In Saitama to teach English, the narrator is confronted by unlikely visions of home as he gradually enters the world of contemporary Japan, with its floating stories, enigmas, and contradictions. His own story is deftly interwoven with that of a real-life nineteenth-century Canadian adventurer, whose strange confinement in a Japanese prison, beginning in 1848, is so vividly imagined by the narrator. Full of delightful tales and eccentric characters, and written with the delicacy of a brushstroke artist, The City of Yes is suffused with warm humour, and with the intelligence and curiosity of a keen observer of life’s riches and eccentricities.

 

10. The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans by Courtney Angela Brkic
When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a morgue in a small town and excavating graves at Srebenica is braided with her family’s remarkable history in what was once Yugoslavia. The Stone Fields, deeply personal and wise, asks what it takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Here is the penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books series.  As ever, I hope something here piques your interest, or inspires you to go and find some underrated books of your own!

1. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo 9613541
Monty and Ada are old friends. They worked together on the frontline in Belgium, where Monty was a nurse and Ada drove ambulances – like the devil. And now, Bleakly Hall hydropathic has brought them together again.  Monty has just arrived to look after the gouty residents – there to take the Hall’s curative waters via nozzle, douche and jet – and Ada is the maid and driver. For all those at Bleakly, the end of the Great War has brought changes. Not all of them good.  Monty has a score to settle with the elusive Captain Foxley; Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose; the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate Bleakly for a new era; Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. But with the crumbling, rumbling hydropathic threatening to blow its top, what will become of the folk thrown together in its bilious embrace?  This wonderfully original novel brings together an irresistible cast of characters – including Bleakly Hall itself – in the wake of one of history’s great tragedies. To powerful effect, it combines fizzing comedy with a deeply moving look at the aftermath of war.

 

2. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
The elusive dream of locating the Northwest Passage—an ocean route over the top of North America that promised a shortcut to the fabulous wealth of Asia—obsessed explorers for centuries. While global warming has brought several such routes into existence, until recently these channels were hopelessly choked by impassible ice. Voyagers faced unimaginable horrors—entire ships crushed, mass starvation, disabling frostbite, even cannibalism—in pursuit of a futile goal. In Arctic Labyrinth, Glyn Williams charts the entire sweep of this extraordinary history, from the tiny, woefully equipped vessels of the first Tudor expeditions to the twentieth-century ventures that finally opened the Passage. Williams’s thrilling narrative delves into private letters and journals to expose the gritty reality behind the often self-serving accounts of those in charge. An important work of maritime history and exploration—and as exciting a tale of heroism and fortitude as readers will find—Arctic Labyrinth is also a remarkable study in human delusion.

 

33742493. A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 by F.G. Rea
These are the memories of Frederick Rea, an English teacher who became headmaster of Garrynamonie School in South Uist in the 1890s. At that time, the Hebrides were as remote and forbidding to mainlanders as the Antarctic is to us today, and South Uist was one of the poorer districts. Roads were often no more than rough tracks across the mountain moorland or over the storm-swept machair. His Gaelic-speaking pupils were often frozen and starving, and fever epidemics were frequent. Rea’s memoirs show how he strove to meet these difficulties. His pupils remember him as a sincere, conscientious man and an excellent teacher. This book also reveals his keen powers of observation, and his interest in the unfamiliar scenes and events he witnessed and recorded. His lack of city comforts was more that compensated for by the wonders of the natural world and the uncommon kindness and generosity of the islanders. Dr. Rea treasured his memories of South Uist for the rest of his life, and his love and respect for the islands is wonderfully conveyed in this vivid testament.

 

4. Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones
By the time she was committed to an asylum in 1938, five years after T. S. Eliot deserted her, Vivienne Eliot was a lonely, distraught figure. Shunned by literary London, she was the “neurotic” wife whom Eliot had left behind. In The Family Reunion, he described a wife who was a “restless shivering painted shadow,” and so she had become: a phantomlike shape on the fringe of Eliot’s life, written out of his biography and literary history.  This astonishing portrait of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of poet T.S. Eliot, gives a voice to the woman who, for seventeen years, had shared a unique literary partnership with Eliot but who was scapegoated for the failure of the marriage and all but obliterated from historical record. In so doing, Painted Shadow opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.  Vivienne longed to tell her whole story; she wrote in her diary: “You who in later years will read these very words of mine will be able to trace a true history of this epoch.” She believed (as did Virginia Woolf) that she was Eliot’s muse, the woman through whom he transmuted life into art. Yet Vivienne knew the secrets of his separate and secret life — which contributed to her own deepening hysteria, drug addiction, and final abandonment: the tragedy of a marriage that paired a repressed yet sensual man with an extroverted woman who longed for a full sexual relationship with her husband.  Out of this emotional turbulence came one of the most important English poems of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, which Carole Seymour-Jones convincingly shows cannot be fully understood without reference to the relationship of the poet and his first wife. Drawing on papers both privately owned and in university library archives and, most importantly, on Vivienne Eliot’s own journals left to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carole Seymour-Jones uses many hitherto unpublished sources and opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.

 

5. The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangwing 407756
Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai’s pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing’s extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han’s richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English.

 

6. Once Upon a Time by John Barth
From master storyteller and National Book Award winner John Barth comes a bravura performance: a memoir wrapped in a novel and launched on a sea voyage. A cutter-rigged sloop sets sail for an end-of-season cruise down into the “Chesapeake Triangle.” Our captain: a middle-aged writer of some repute. The sole crewmate: his lover, friend, editor, and wife. The journey turns out to be not the modest three-day cruise it at first seems. As we sail through sun and storm, our skipper spins (and is spun by) the Story of His Life – an operatic saga that’s part Verdi, part Puccini, and more than a dollop of bouffe, a compound narrative voyaging through the imagination. Crisscrossing the past, mixing memory with desire, our narrator navigates among the waypoints of his life, beguiling us with tales of adventure and despair, love and marriage, selves and counterselves, aging and sailing, teaching and writing – steering always by the polestar of Vocation, the storyteller’s call.

 

2684457. The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories by Li Ang
Li Ang’s highly charged fiction has made her one of the most widely known Taiwanese authors of her time. This new anthology begins with the internationally acclaimed “The Butcher’s Wife,” a novella that evoked shock and outrage in Taiwan when it first appeared in 1983. The shorter stories that follow range from Li Ang’s first story, “Flower Season” (1968), through “A Love Letter Never Sent” (1986), and include stories that are erotic, thought provoking, and cautionary.

 

8. The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The five interlocking stories in The Tower Of Glass create a singular, powerful account of a nation in turmoil – and a prophetic warning about an oppressive government’s need to control not just the society but the mind. Through symbolism, wry humour, and outrageous sexual frankness, Ivan Angelo tells of businessmen and whores, poor working people and Death Squads, truth and illusion, and methods of political manipulation and terror. From the gritty, bawdy story of “Bete the Streetwalker” to the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made of glass, the fictional pieces demonstrate Angelo’s masterful wordplay, and his ability to take formal and structural risks without a false step.

 

9. What’s Become of Waring by Anthony Powell 6977196
This fascinating catalog of the comic relates the ironic and ludicrous adventures of a noted (but mysterious) English travel-book writer whose reported “death” throws the London literary world into a tizzy.’

 

10. Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss
A vivid portrayal of life in Pompeii’s sister city, this book includes a detailed description of the ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the present Getty Museum in Malibu is modeled.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

With this post, we reach the midway point of this series of Really Underrated Books.  As ever, there are some very different tomes highlighted here, from essay collections to books hailed ‘impossible to define’.

1. Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political by James Kelman
James Kelman is justly celebrated as a major European novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Yet crucially his “artistry, authenticity and a voice of singular power” (Independent) flow from being an engaged writer and a cultural and political activist. In this collection of essays, polemics, and talks, Kelman directs his linguistic craftsmanship and scathing humor at the racism, class bias, and elitism of the English literary scene, the Labour Party’s establishment role, the treatment of asbestos victims, the media, and other political and cultural questions. Essays include “Artists and Value,” “Art and Subsidy,” “Some Recent Attacks on the Rights of the People,” “A Brief Note on the War Being Waged Against the Victims of Asbestos,” and “The Importance of Glasgow in My Work.”

 

2. The Passive Vampire by Gherasim Luca 3240545
Originally published in 1945 by Les Éditions de l’Oubli in Bucharest, The Passive Vampire caught the attention of the French Surrealists when an excerpt appeared in 1947 alongside texts by Jabès and Michaux in Georges Henein’s magazine La part du sable. Luca, whose work was admired by Gilles Deleuze, attempts here to transmit the “shudder” evoked by some Surrealist texts, such as André Breton’s Nadja and Mad Love, probing with acerbic humor the fragile boundary between “objective chance” and delirium.  Impossible to define, The Passive Vampire is a mixture of theoretical treatise and breathless poetic prose, personal confession and scientific investigation – it is 18 photographs of “objectively offered objects,” a category created by Luca to occupy the space opened up by Breton. At times taking shape as assemblages, these objects are meant to capture chance in its dynamic and dramatic forms by externalizing the ambivalence of our drives and bringing to light the nearly continual equivalence between our love-hate tendencies and the world of things.

 

3. Berlin Wild by Elly Welt
Banned from school by Nazi proclamation, 16-year-old Josef Berhardt enters the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute as a lab assistant, but the guilt he feels for spending the war drinking laboratory-brewed vodka and discovering sex with female researchers will haunt him for 20 years. How he finally learns to forgive himself makes this black comedy a moving, rewarding novel.

 

18075654. Diary of Gesa Csath by Gesa Csath
An acclaimed neurologist widely viewed as Hungary’s first contemporary author, Geza Csath was also a morphine addict who shot and killed his wife before killing himself. The diary begins as a clinically graphic depiction of Csath’s conquest of dozens of women – from chambermaids to aristocrats – during his tenure as a doctor at a Slovakian health spa in 1912.

 

5. In the Hour of Signs by Jamal Mahjoub
Nineteenth-century Sudan, wracked by religious, cultural, and political differences, is brilliantly evoked in the most ambitious book yet by this talented novelist. This, Mahjoub’s 1996 novel, centers around the Battle of Omdurman—one of the great colonial wars in Britian’s attempt to gain control over the Sudan. Mahojoub brings this period to life with perception, honesty, and integrity.  This is a story of fighting men, most Sudanese but some British; some showed wisdom, but for the most part they were either mad or misguided. Mahjoub writes with a profound, poetic intensity that illuminates a wide range of characters; from the cook to the Mahdi, from an Arab prostitute to the gentle Hawi, whose powerful message combines with the judgment and blindness of the other characters to bind the story together in a satisfying yet disturbing way.

 

6. Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko
The history of footbinding is full of contradictions and unexpected turns. The practice originated in the dance culture of China’s medieval court and spread to gentry families, brothels, maid’s quarters, and peasant households. Conventional views of footbinding as patriarchal oppression often neglect its complex history and the incentives of the women involved. This revisionist history, elegantly written and meticulously researched, presents a fascinating new picture of the practice from its beginnings in the tenth century to its demise in the twentieth century. Neither condemning nor defending foot-binding, Dorothy Ko debunks many myths and misconceptions about its origins, development, and eventual end, exploring in the process the entanglements of male power and female desires during the practice’s thousand-year history.  Cinderella’s Sisters argues that rather than stemming from sexual perversion, men’s desire for bound feet was connected to larger concerns such as cultural nostalgia, regional rivalries, and claims of male privilege. Nor were women hapless victims, the author contends. Ko describes how women—those who could afford it—bound their own and their daughters’ feet to signal their high status and self-respect. Femininity, like the binding of feet, was associated with bodily labor and domestic work, and properly bound feet and beautifully made shoes both required exquisite skills and technical knowledge passed from generation to generation. Throughout her narrative, Ko deftly wields methods of social history, literary criticism, material culture studies, and the history of the body and fashion to illustrate how a practice that began as embodied lyricism—as a way to live as the poets imagined—ended up being an exercise in excess and folly.

 

7. No Way of Telling by Emma Smith (of Persephone fame!) 6111016
The day they were sent home early from school because of a threatening blizzard, Amy rode with the other pupils in Mrs. Rhys’s van to where the road ended, but from there she had to trudge by herself through the driving snowflakes to the Gwyntfa, the gray stone cottage where she lived alone with her grandmother, Mrs. Bowen. Once home, Amy knew she was safe. With a well-stoked larder and plenty of oil for the lamps, her grandmother promised her they might even enjoy being snowed in. They liked each other’s company and every night would sit one on each side of the fire, working at their patchwork quilt until it was time for a cup of tea and a game of Patience or Two-handed Whist before bed.  But on the day the snow began they never played their game of cards. They were interrupted by a growl from Amy’s dog, a tremendous thump at the door, and an intrusion of such violence as they had never in their lives met before. Yet though there was no way of telling who their intruder might be, Mrs. Bowen somehow knew he meant them no harm; and in the four extraordinary days that followed, bringing intruders of a different kind, Amy discovered that her grandmother’s instinct had been right.  Against the beautifully portrayed background of a Welsh hillfarm in winter, suspense mounts almost unbearably for Amy and her grandmother – and for the reader as well – as they face ruthless evil in this contemporary story superbly told by a distinguished writer.

 

8. Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood
Corrigan is at once a mordant comedy of manners and a very modern morality play. Since her husband’s death, the increasingly frail Mrs. Blunt has had only her trips to his grave to look forward to. Her raucous housekeeper’s conversation, and cooking, are best forgotten. Nadine, her daughter, is an infrequent, uneasy visitor. Then one day a charming, wheelchair-bound Irishman shows up at Mrs. Blunt’s door in search of charitable contributions. Corrigan is an arch manipulator, Mrs. Blunt is his mark, and before long we realize that they are made for each other. As the two grow ever more entrenched, Nadine fears for her mother’s safety (or is it for her own inheritance?). With Corrigan Caroline Blackwood takes a long, hard look at our dearly beloved notions of saints and sinners, victims and villains, patrimony and present pleasure—and winks.

 

1291889. Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander
In this generously illustrated book, Anne Hollander examines the representation of the body and clothing in Western art, from Greek sculpture and vase painting through medieval and renaissance portraits, to contemporary films and fashion photography. First published ahead of its time, this book has become a classic.

 

10. Requiem by Shizuko Go
The end of World War II in the city of Yokohama, Japan, is portrayed through the heartfelt conversations and letters of two young women. Setsuko and Naomi, classmates and friends living in a bombed-out city, sort through their individual beliefs: “two girls, seventeen and fifteen at their next birthday, and though their real lives had yet to begin they were talking like old folk lost in reminiscences. Or perhaps this was their old age, for the hour of their death was near, as they well knew.” Everyone close to Setsuko is dead as a result of the war, yet she believes in the war unquestioningly and writes letters to soldiers on the front urging them to fight to the finish. Naomi’s father is imprisoned because of his anti-war beliefs and she struggles to find justification for war. Over the course of the novel, through flashbacks that occur within sentences or paragraphs, the horrors of the war are brought painfully to life and each young woman questions her own stand. Who is more patriotic? What are the rules of war when it is in your front yard? Shizuko Go, herself a survivor of the bombing of Yokohama, has written a devastating and important novel.

 

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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

The second part in this installment of Really Underrated Books is here!  Like me, I hope you are intrigued by some of the titles below.  Again, all of these books have less than 500 ratings on Goodreads (in fact, many of them fall below the 100 mark), and there are some surprisingly well-known authors upon it.

1. Subtly Worded by Teffi
Teffi’s genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny-a wry, scathing observer of society-she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character.  There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace’s Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion. There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and a deep, compelling intelligence.

 

97801401023902. Pack of Cards and Other Stories by Penelope Lively
In Pack of Cards, Penelope Lively introduces the reader to slivers of the everyday world that are not always open to observation, as she delves into the minutiae of her characters’ lives. Whether she writes about a widow on a visit to Russia, a small boy’s consignment to boarding school, or an agoraphobic housewife, Penelope Lively takes the reader past the closed curtains, through the locked door, into a world that seems at first mundane and then at second glance, proves to be uniquely memorable.

 

3. Death in Leamington by David Smith
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.   Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Leter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.

 

4. Sleepyhead Assassins by Mindy Nettifee 1170236
By turns raunchy, vulnerable, youthful and wise, Mindy Nettifee has been a mainstay of the Southern California poetry scene for the last decade, and she makes her full-length book debut with this edgy collection.

 

5. A Farm Under a Lake by Martha Bergman
Home health care nurse Janet Hawn agrees to drive her latest client, a silent Alzheimer’s patient named May, from Green Bay, Wisconsin to her daughter’s house in northern Illinois. Janet and her husband Jack, an out-of-work salesman, grew up on neighboring farms in Illinois, and on the long drive through familiar territory, Janet reflects back on her childhood and courtship and tries to figure out where her life took a wrong turn.

 

10418556. Out of the Woodshed: A Biography of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘ Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

7. Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, edited by Tina Chang
Language for a New Century celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today in the East, bringing together an unprecedented selection of works by South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. Some poets, such as Bei Dao and Mahmoud Darwish, are acclaimed worldwide, but many more will be new to the reader. The collection includes 400 unique voices—political and apolitical, monastic and erotic—that represent a wider artistic movement that challenges thousand-year-old traditions, broadening our notion of contemporary literature. Each section of the anthology—organized by theme rather than by national affiliation—is preceded by a personal essay from the editors that introduces the poetry and exhorts readers to examine their own identities in light of these powerful poems. In an age of violence and terrorism, often predicated by cultural ignorance, this anthology is a bold declaration of shared humanity and devotion to the transformative power of art.

 

8. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn 25473286
What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.  Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.  In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.

 

9. Eagles’ Nest by Anna Kavan
In this powerful fantasy, Kavan describes the life of an individual who cannot face the harsh impact of modern civilization. Exploring the shifting territory between the concrete world and the world of dreams, she questions both the ultimate reality of personal identity and of existence itself.

 

2676671410. The Bridal March and One Day by Bjornstjerne Bjornson
‘Norwegian journalist, poet and novelist Bjonstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910) earned lasting fame with his “peasant novels,” especially “Fiskerjenten” (“The Fisher Lassie).” The tales in this volume, “The Bridal March” and “One Day,” give entrancing accounts of everyday life in Norway — one set in the country, the other in the town. Bjornson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903.’

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‘Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945’ – edited by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris ****

Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of.  I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University’s library from Cardiff.  Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them ‘the opportunity to speak for themselves’.  Twenty-six first person case studies have been included in all, offering a ‘rare privilege’ to the reader.  ‘As a whole,’ the editors write in their introduction, ‘these narratives offer a clear picture of women’s lives from both within and outside the asylums in which they lived.  Individually, they provide some of the most harrowing tales of the abuses of the psychiatric system’.44099

Women of the Asylum has been split into four separate, distinct sections to cover the rather vast historical period – 1840 to 1865, 1866 to 1890, 1891 to 1920, and 1921 to 1945 – which all loosely relate to particular periods in treatment, or important turning points within political discourse. Geller and Harris also discuss their decision to split the period up into smaller chunks due to shifting moral and social conditions in the United States.  They write that ‘the nineteenth-century women of the asylum are morally purposeful, philosophical, often religious.  Their frame of reference, and their use of language, are romantic – Christian and Victorian.  They write like abolitionists, transcendentalists, suffragists.  The twentieth-century women are keen observers of human nature and asylum abuse – but they have no universal frame of reference.  They face “madness” and institutional abuse alone, without God, ideology, or each other.’

The women focused upon here, some of which you will have heard of (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance), and others who were publicly unknown, all ‘wanted to right the wrongs they saw being perpetuated by what they perceived to be autocratic families, domineering physicians, unfeeling attendants, and misguided lawmakers’ in one way or another.  Regardless of their social class, whilst trapped within the asylums, none of the women were ‘treated with any kindness, sympathy, or medical or spiritual expertise’.   Each account here was written once the woman in question had been handed her freedom once more, and many were later published as warnings to others about the horrors which the asylum held, or as a process of self-healing.  Some of the women took direct action afterwards, campaigning for change, and others faded into relative obscurity.

As one would expect, I’m sure, some incredibly shocking accounts are presented here; for instance, the way in which ‘any sign of economic independence or simple human pride in a woman could be used against her, both legally and psychiatrically.’  There was also the fear that an individual would be driven to become mad solely due to her incarceration, or that she would remain in an asylum indefinitely, with no hope of ever escaping.

Some incredibly interesting questions have been posed throughout – for instance, whether such firsthand accounts can be trusted due to the mental imbalance which their authors may be suffering from, or the possible delusional aspect of their condition.  Each of these women, regardless of her circumstance or the amount of time in which she was locked away – and the periods vary drastically, from two months per year as a ‘rest cure’ of sorts, to the horrific stretch of twenty-eight years, such as Adriana P. Brinckle had to face – has legitimacy; each has her own story to tell.

In Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris have presented a far-reaching and well-researched account, which has been introduced in a wise and lucid manner by Phyllis Chesler.  The concluding message seems to be this: ‘Whether they were rebels, social misfits, visionaries or madwomen is left for the reader to decide’.  If you can get your hands on this important and invaluable piece of literary gold dust, I would urge you to read it.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal’ by Asne Seierstad ****

A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal is the third of Seierstad’s books which I have read to date, and has been translated from the Norwegian by Ingrid Christophersen.  This particular reportage comes from Iraq, where Seierstad stayed for over three months in the beginning of 2003.  A Norwegian award-winning journalist, she had been sent to the country in order to report upon the war and its aftermath; she arrives before said war, and is able to report upon the state of politics, and the way of life for the city’s citizens.  The book’s blurb reads that ‘her passionate and erudite book conveys both the drama and the tragedy of her one hundred and one days in a city at war’.   9780465076017

I was in my early years of secondary school when the Iraq war broke out.  Whilst I remember much of the reportage, and the horrors which it conveyed, I do not feel as though I was given much of an idea about how awful it must have been to live, and to try to survive, in the country at the time.  I haven’t read much about Iraq from a retrospective position, but felt that it was an important thing to do.

In A Hundred and One Days, Seierstad brilliantly details the frustrations and dangers which journalists worldwide faced in trying to uncover the truth behind the all-pervasive propaganda of the regime.  She is humble with regard to her account: ‘No story contains the whole story.  This is just one of many and it gives a fragment of the whole, not more.’  She demonstrates what a hold propaganda had upon the country, and also shows the new, brave breed of people, who wanted to remain anonymous, but found it important to tell her the truth about what they were living through.  She writes, ‘Iraq has become a country of schizophrenics and cowards, a country where people fear their friends, their family, their own children.  Once upon a time Iraq was the lighthouse of the Middle East, but thirty years of Oriental Stalinism and twelve years of embargoes has crushed the country and its people’.

The book’s translation is rather Americanised, and I must admit that I found a few of the past participles and such used rather jarring.  The writing itself wasn’t as good as I have come to expect from Seierstad either; I remember her being rather eloquent in The Bookseller of Kabul, and One of Us, her reportage of Anders Breivik and the Oslo massacre he perpetrated, is incredibly strong with regard to its prose.

At first, the book failed to grip me.  Some of the paragraphs in the initial section were incredibly interesting, but others felt too drawn out, and there was no real sense of cohesion to the whole.  As other reviews have mentioned, much emphasis is placed upon office bureaucracy; whilst obviously pivotal for Seierstad, to allow her to extend her stay in the country, this did not seem overly useful on the whole for the general reader.  Some of the extended interviews also seem to have been cut a little short, or repeat almost entirely the details of others.  Once I had read past the first fifty pages, however, I found the book incredibly compelling.  There was some clumsy phrasing at times, but it was largely rather a fluid piece.  The inclusion of original newspaper pieces was beneficial to the whole, and largely they flowed seamlessly from the main body of prose.

A Hundred and One Days is a fascinating, thorough, and honest portrait of a wartorn city, and whilst it is not my favourite piece of Seierstad’s longer journalistic pieces, it is certainly an important book to read in order to understand the reasoning behind and conditions of the war.

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